Monday, April 27, 2009

What Is US Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan Still Doing in Obama's Justice Department? Using Cell Phones To Track People

At BuzzFlash, Christine Bowman writes:

BuzzFlash and a few other progressive news sites have noted that the Obama Administration is not in the least free yet of the legacy of the US attorney firing scandal of 2007 known as Prosecutorgate. Sure, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was forced to exit in disgrace. Bradley Schlozman, Monica Goodling and Kyle Sampson also gained notoriety due to Congressional hearings. But the legacy of a deeply politicized Department of Justice (DOJ) remains. More independent-minded former US attorneys David Iglesias and Carol Lam
, who failed to target Democrats for prosecution, are out. Prosecutors like Mary Beth Buchanan and Leura Canary, who have energetically targeted Democratic office holders, are in and still causing trouble.

US Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan, still heading up the Western District of Pennsylvania office, certainly personifies the problem if any one attorney does. In December 2008, having served since September 2001, Buchanan declared herself unwilling to give up her office -- Alice Martin of Birmingham, AL also refuses to bow out -- in defiance of the long-standing tradition that US Attorneys tender their resignations at the start of every new administration.

Yet Scott Horton writing at The Daily Beast notes:

In the key period of 2004-05, while groundwork was laid for what later became the U.S. attorney's scandal, Buchanan served as director of the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, the key position at Justice that oversaw all the 94 U.S. attorneys. A later internal Justice Department probe, in which Buchanan figures prominently, highlights the role played by that office in Karl Rove’s plan to sack U.S. attorneys.
What is Buchanan's agenda as a prosecutor? From the get-go in 2001, she pursued obscenity cases and chased down marijuana dealers -- and high-profile drug paraphernalia vendor Tommy Chong, as BuzzFlash reported -- very publicly and aggressively advancing a right-wing "values" agenda. She "took the directives from Washington to heart," as Charlie Deitch, writing for the Pittsburgh City Paper, put it.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette further describes Buchanan as a person of "hard-driving ambition," and quotes Thomas J. Farrell, a former assistant federal prosecutor, as saying, "whether you like her or not, she probably will end up being one of the most influential U.S. attorneys we've had."

Reagan and G. H. W. Bush Attorney General and former PA Governor Dick Thornburgh saw problems with Buchanan's partisan approach when he was on the defense team of one of her Democratic targets, Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht. In addition to Wecht, Buchanan has tenaciously pursued a Democratic Pittsburgh mayor, a Democratic sheriff, and a Democratic county judge, but not Republicans -- not even former Senator Rick Santorum, whose several ethics issues helped him lose his reelection bid. (Santorum had enthusiastically supported Buchanan's nomination and confirmation as a US attorney.)

Buchanan's current passion is apparently to chip away at privacy protections that are guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment. She's all for warrantless wiretapping, but also for using cell-site location information (CSLI) -- in other words, accessing cell phone company records to pinpoint any cell-phone user's past or present whereabouts. Talk Left reports that Buchanan wants that power not only in national security or terrorism-related cases, but for just any old criminal prosecution like a narcotics case.
At issue in the Pennsylvania case is "historical" cell phone location records. Buchanan argues it's no different than pen registers and trap and traces because it doesn't intercept the voice. Scholars and many other judges have disagreed, saying when you use the cell phone to determine location, it's like a tracking device. The law requires probable cause for tracking devices....

It should be a no-brainer that when the Government seeks information about your location from your cell phone they need a warrant based on probable cause, not some boiler-plate statement to the judge that the information is relevant to an ongoing investigation.

The lower court's opinion in the Pennsylvania case is here (pdf). The Obama Justice Department briefs, filed by Buchanan, are here (pdf) and here (pdf). The second was filed just last week.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, American Civil Liberties Union, and Center for Democracy and Technology have argued that a showing of probable cause is needed before a cell phone service provider could be compelled to disclose geographic data about a subscriber, according to

Meanwhile, prominent and powerful Western PA US Representative John Murtha, a Democrat, is finding himself, or at least his friends, the target of investigations, as David D. Kirkpatrick reported in The New York Times April 25. Not only have prosecutors "raided the offices of the PMA Group — a lobbying firm founded by a former Murtha associate" [but] ... "Reports of the PMA investigation coincided with the news that federal agents had also raided Kuchera Industries, a Johnstown, Pa., company built on Mr. Murtha’s patronage whose owners held a fund-raiser for him on their private game ranch." Murtha is the top Democrat on the House Defense Appropriations Committee which oversees huge earmarks for military spending.

A writer at Firedoglake speculated in February that Buchanan intends to hang on beyond her welcome as US attorney in order to get Rep. Murtha:
But I think she's got much bigger Democratic fish she wants to stick around to fry: Jack Murtha. The NYT follows up on what ABC reported earlier: that investigators conducted two raids on entities associated with Murtha. ...

Note the timing: Murtha wins his closest election in years in November. And then the Feds raid a lobbying firm closely connected to him. In December, Buchanan refuses to step down. And in January the FBI raids Kuchera--a company that has no clear ties to PMA, but is closely associated with Murtha.

Mind you, Murtha has long been acknowledged to be one of the most corrupt Democrats in Congress. I'm sure there's at least something that Buchanan used to justify this investigation.

But just as Murtha has long been acknowledged to be one of the most corrupt Dems, Buchanan has been acknowledged to be one of the most corrupt US Attorneys. Which means, given Buchanan's obstinate refusal to leave, this one may blow up into a full-fledged political witch hunt.
As yet there seems to be no news to contradict the "Get Murtha" theory. Of course, Rep. Murtha became a magnet for right-wing hate when he called for bringing American troops home from the Iraq War in 2005. That seems as likely an underlying reason for a sudden attack as earmarks or campaign contributions.

Will Eric Holder's Justice Department bring Buchanan's anti-Democratic, anti-progressive era to an end? The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported on several possible replacements for her back in March. How about picking one and moving on? Justice still has lots of repairs to its integrity to undertake.